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  • Humpback Whale with Calf
    T e x t   a n d   P h o t o g r a p h y   b y   W a l t   S t e a r n s

    "Come on darling, all we want is a peek," said Tom Conlin, as he maneuvered us on an intercept course with a Humpback mother and calf. By closing the gap to 150 feet, we were able to observe the calf rolling lazily on her side and slapping her six foot long, white pectoral fin repeatedly on the surface.

    Despite their substantial size, intelligence and visual and acoustic acuity, Humpback Whales are relatively shy, even timid creatures when it comes to confrontations with man. Getting close to these giants in the water requires a non-threatening approach referred to as the "soft in-water encounter," a strategy of timing and patience. Key points include not splashing on the surface and not swimming at the whales, which could be construed as an act of aggression, driving them quickly away. The idea is to float, allowing the whales to initiate the encounter. Once this occurs, divers (using snorkeling equipment only) can move about a little more freely. Encounters can vary from several minutes to as much as an hour.

    Tom's knowledge and eight years of experience at the Silver Bank have made him one of the most sought after behaviorists. This demand has placed him with leading cetacean researchers from Cornell University to Roger Payne's Whale Conservation Society, as well as production companies, including The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBS, ABC, IMAX films and National Geographic.

    Slipping another 100 feet closer, Tom killed the engine and instructed our group to ease into the water silently and calmly. Visibility was normal for the region, ranging from 50 to better than 90 feet. We floated patiently, afraid the calf and mother, hovering 30 feet below, might bolt if we made any movement. As luck would have it, the calf acted as if it wanted to play, rolling from side to side and cruising forward to meet the group.

    It is truly difficult to describe the full visual, even spiritual impact of gazing into the eye of such an immense creature. Witnessing a whale upclose and personal, even if it should happen to be just a calf, is a somewhat surrealistic experience.

    As exhilarating as our 15 minutes were-with our young friend swimming from one snorkeler to the next-Mom decided it was time to move on. Since she measures 45 to 50 feet in length and weighs close to 40 tons, there's no arguing with Mom! Dropping to a depth of 20 feet to get a few last shots of the departing pair, I had a sense of what it might feel like to be a turtle crawling on the roadside as a large truck roars by. As the mother passed a mere 10 feet to my right, I looked right into her large, human-like eye. This was indeed a benevolent creature. In a matter of seconds the two were gone without so much as a ripple or backwash.

    Clash of the Titans

    For the past 16 to 18 million years, between 3,500 to 5,000 North Atlantic Humpbacks (Megaptera novaengliae, meaning Big-winged New Englander) have made one of the longest annual migrations of any creature on earth, a distance of approximately 2,500 miles. Like clockwork, the largest gathering, commencing the first week of January through the end of March, occurs at the Silver Bank.

    Approximately 90 miles north of the Dominican Republic, the Silver Bank is one of the largest breeding and calving areas for Humpback Whales in the North Atlantic and possibly the world. Established as a whale sanctuary in 1986 by President Joaquin Balagaer, it was later enlarged and renamed Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic. The added area encompasses Samana Bay and the northern and eastern coastlines of the Dominican Republic.

    The name Silver Bank was derived from a large cache of silver, valued at 40 million dollars, that was dumped in the area by the ill-fated wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Concepcion in 1641. Covered with huge, towering coral heads, some mere inches beneath the surface, the 20 square mile range of the Silver Bank is still considered a navigational nightmare. To visit these waters takes a hardy vessel with the range to make the journey and an ability to handle rough seas.

    While it is still a mystery as to why these leviathans choose this specific warm water location for their age old ritual, one thing is clear: during the journey, as the females go into estrus, the testosterone levels in the adult males spike to extremely high levels. Upon arrival, every bull is driven by a single, overpowering purpose-to find and copulate with an agreeable female, triggering an astounding exhibition of courtship behaviors. During this period, they feed on nothing until their return home around late spring.

    What people know most about Humpback Whales is that they are the most vocal group of cetaceans, producing bird-like songs comprised of long, mournful moans, growls, chirps and high, wistful warbles in an almost endless cycle. During outings Tom uses a directional hydrophone to guide the tender over the top of a singing bull. One of the more interesting experiences of the trip is listening to the individual songs of several bulls in the distance during a night dive. In addition to producing courtship songs, the bulls also make thunderous breaches and engage in volleys of tail lobbing and/or fin slaps across the ocean's surface. With only three months to find a willing female, the bulls often turn into fierce competitors, transforming from gentle giants into combative titans.

    Perhaps the most awe inspiring spectacle that transpires during this migratory period is the formation of a "rowdy group," the behavioral label for a large contingent of courting bulls (sometimes numbering eight to nine) in pursuit of a single cow. During these events, bulls vying to earn the cow's favor violently engage one another, either by utilizing their giant pectoral fins to swat a fellow suitor, ramming a rival underwater or breaching across his back. Before the end of the season nearly every bull will display either a badly mangled dorsal fin or several tubicals (giant hair follicles commonly called "stove bolts" atop the head and rostrum) torn completely away, leaving a bloody rent in its place.

    During such an event, a young calf (in the company of its mother) can be put at risk. According to Tom, cows will sometimes seek shelter next to the boat so that the youngster can rest, taking advantage of a bull's apprehension of the tender. These "time-outs" have afforded some quite endearing in-water encounters with the calf.